By Truman Capote
Random House. 142 pp. $22.95
Truman Capote was never shy about staking a claim on the world's attention, but at least once in his life, he took a pass. "Summer Crossing," the first novel he wrote, was tossed into a bureau drawer to make room for the work that would become "Other Voices, Other Rooms." Two decades later, he was in no hurry to take it from its drawer: "Not bad, as I remember: technically accomplished, an interesting enough tale, but without intensity or pain, without the qualities of a private vision, the anxieties that then had control of my emotions and imagination." It was a "thin" book, he confessed, "clever, unfelt."
Capote had so shrugged it off that he left it behind in his Brooklyn apartment, where it was found in a box of documents by his house sitter, only to reemerge in 2004 in Sotheby's auction lots. The long-lost, little-loved manuscript was snatched up by Random House, Capote's former publisher, and if the folks there shared his reservations about airing it, they worked through them. No publisher ever got rich, at any rate, respecting an author's wishes.
Which brings us to this thin and clever and not altogether unfelt novella, patched together from four handwritten notebooks. Capote, in retrospect, was wise to scale down expectations. This is a dry run for "Breakfast at Tiffany's," not "In Cold Blood": a jaunt through Manhattan's Upper East Side in the giddy months after V-E Day, the kind of Eloise-grows-up world where people breakfast at the Plaza and meet up at the Pomme Souffle and where a 17-year-old debutante-to-be can gasp to her bestest friend: "We're in the most terrible rush. Mother and Dad are sailing for Europe, and I'm seeing them off on the boat."
See them off she does, and Grady McNeil is now free to make a crossing of her own: the passage from girl to woman. To which she brings her good looks -- hair of "new-penny color" and "a skinny, nimble face, shaped with bones of fish-spine delicacy" -- and an "aura of willful and privileged enchantment" that has so far been equal to any trouble.
Then again, Grady has never known trouble like this. She's dangerously in love with Clyde Manzer, a parking lot attendant and war veteran whose Brooklyn address makes him almost as unsuitable in Grady's world as his Jewish mother. Sneaking him into her parents' posh apartment for afternoon lovemaking, Grady finds herself increasingly disarmed by this stranger, wanting to "submit herself to the power of him" even as she concedes how little she knows about him. "It was as if the world where they joined were a ship, one becalmed between the two islands that were themselves: With any effort he could see the shore of her, but his was lost in the unlifting mist."
"Summer Crossing" begins in the realm of social satire: Grady's flighty mother takes "a professional interest in Trinity Church, the Cosmopolitan, the Republican Party." Slowly, Capote turns up the heat and turns down the lights, so that the Liebestod finale registers as the faintest dimming. The craft is impressive in such a young writer, but the best reason to read this book is to witness the coming together of Capote's voice, the electric-into-neon blaze that is surely one of the premier styles of postwar American literature. It kicks in, fittingly enough, around a heat wave: "Office-workers, drifting back from lunch with the dazed desperate expression of children being bullied, began to dial Weather. . . . The steaming willow-limp stretches of Central Park were like a battlefield where many have fallen: rows of exhausted casualties lay crumpled in the dead-still shade, while newspaper photographers, documenting the disaster, moved sepulchrally among them. In the cat house at the zoo, the suffering lions roared."
What makes "Summer Crossing" a compromised and, finally, minor work is that Capote is trying to squeeze his native romanticism into the template of sophisticated indirection championed by the New Yorker (his employer then). It's not an easy fit, as he must have seen. And yet, on some level, I prefer the wit and compactness of this maiden effort to the Guignol gumbo of "Other Voices, Other Rooms." And for all Capote's disavowals, it is every bit as private a vision.
I'm thinking, in particular, of the twined desire and shame in Grady's encounters with Clyde -- the clammy heat of their furtive trysts -- all this would have been familiar to a young gay man of Capote's generation. We even meet such a man: Peter Bell, a childhood friend of Grady's who announces his orientation with his very first line ("Hiho, McNeil!") and later, in a revealing masquerade, gives his name as Walt Whitman. Peter gamely attempts to refit himself as a suitor for Grady, though in the next breath he admits: "It was possible that he never could make love with her. . . . Passion between them would be remarkable, even ludicrous, yes, he could see that (though he did not see it squarely): and for a moment he despised her."
Capote saw his sexuality squarely; fronting it in his work was another matter. He could not, as his rival Gore Vidal did, make a true subject of it. (Or at least he wouldn't.) He had to come at it sideways -- through surrogates -- and it was his peculiar genius as a writer to see that his surrogates needn't be gay or even male. A transplanted hillbilly named Holly Golightly would do just as well as a convicted multiple-murderer named Perry Smith. The only criterion was that they had to live far outside society's pale. Welcome to the world's loneliest club.